Hail, Caesar! is the kind of movie critics like to tell audiences to “buckle up” for. It’s colorful, explosive, and complexly witty. With a blend of heartfelt admiration and towering irreverence for Hollywood’s mythologized 1950s Golden Age, the Coens deliver a sparking parody brimming with intelligent charm.
A riotous montage of homages, Hail, Caesar! follows twenty-four hours in the life of studio executive and de-facto enforcer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Catholic family man and powerhouse of studio loyalty. From dawn to far past midnight, Mannix manages everything from the public debut of tabloid romances to resolving dramatic ransom demands. George Clooney appears as Baird Whitlock, studio superstar and ill-fated but happy-go-lucky kidnapping victim. Then there’s the cheery, easy-going singing cowboy, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), striving to rise past his twanging accent in a society romance picture, under the wing of self-righteously sophisticated director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Scarlett Johansson appears as the foul-mouthed but sweet-on-screen DeeAnna Moran, masking an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) dances across the sound stage in a sailor uniform, a heavy nod to Gene Kelly in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh. With cinematography shaped by heavy Hitchcock overtones and dramatic Old Hollywood montages, the Coens deftly maneuver form and style in a ludicrous (but semi-factual) escapade.
Hail, Caesar! accomplishes exactly—and effortlessly—what flat biopic prestige movies have repeatedly failed to, over the course of the last year. Case in point: Trumbo treads much of the same territory as Caesar (communism in Hollywood, HUAC suspicions, and nefarious political dissenters who also happen to write successful movies). But Caesar refuses to lean seriously on any one topic. Instead, it scampers. The jubilant retelling does more than the formulaic biopic to get into the spirit. It doesn’t only retell: Caesar bypasses strict fact to get at the heart of its directors’ vision. A neat, careful biopic like Trumbo leaves every opportunity for its material to lie dead in the water, which Trumbo’s story often does, with mangled pacing and stiffly-staged drama.
Not to say that engaging fantasy always trumps facts. The Coens, though, dive into the rich, epic strangeness of the times with gusto and bring it alive in caricature, where Trumbo can only deliver a heavy-handed re-reporting of a famous story. The Coen brothers re-interpret and engage with their material—they don’t let it rest, diving from scene to scene, storyline to storyline, with precise timing and crisp, grounding allusions.
Those allusions were not precise in themselves: Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran was based largely off of Esther Williams, at least in terms of her Million Dollar Mermaid performance. However, the pregnancy scandal circling Johansson’s character is closer to that of Barbara La Marr’s, whose covered-up pregnancy has a much darker story than the shrugged-off, life-goes-on mentality of the movie. The movie’s central man, Mannix, combines the duties and characters of several studio enforcers and executives, while spiffing up the image of the historical, womanizing Mannix (less Don Draper, more George Bailey). The Coens have said that they’re not too heavily invested in strict accuracy. And that reluctance to play austerely close to fact does them, in this case, a great service. The material, rather than bogging down the tone and story remains refreshing and flexible.
The parody of a day in the life of Hollywood in its Golden Age—assembly-line movies, squashed scandals, and careful homogeneity—is undoubtedly and unsurprisingly a very good movie. Well-made and well-balanced, it’s an expertly stitched together bit of satire—not that we expected anything less from the two maestro headliners directing it.
And like any good parody, the subject comes away far from unscathed. The movie’s humor hits its punchline in the split-personality wonder and ridicule the Coens heap on their favorite era of cinematic history. The Coens are generous, but not unduly generous, with their vision. While they do smooth over many of the rougher and uglier aspects of Golden Age spectacle, their Old Hollywood comes off as the collective clown of the piece. It’s an energetic façade. It’s impersonal. Its masterpieces are largely accidental. The dangerous Commies become a dysfunctional, hypocritical “study group” whose efforts either go unnoticed or implode explosively. The Great Actor (Clooney) is charmingly frivolous but entirely disconnected from the massive, deeply-felt realities of his movies. His anti-capitalistic moral discovery can literally be shaken out of him in a matter of seconds.
Life goes on; Whitlock finishes his movie, Hail, Caesar!, a stereotypical blood-and-sand epic. The beautiful singing cowboy’s teeth are fake; Hobie’s far from sure how to conduct a public romance—although there’s no other way to have one. Twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) hound scraps of fact, threatening to throw a wrench into the vast interlocking network of studio personalities. The Coens flatter and soften their comedic subject matter, but into a shape that still manages to be accusatory. Absurdity is a charge laid at everyone’s feet in the blind mechanism that is Caesar’s Hollywood. Nobody gets away unscathed.
At the same time admiration shines through with determined rapidity. In a scene that flouts all the actual emotional gravity of a Golden Age drama, Mannix wanders pensively through the set of Hail, Caesar!: A Story of the Christ (a blatant Ben Hur nod: they share a subtitle), climbing past massive set pieces. Those set pieces include the legs—stopping short at the hips—of a monumental Roman emperor. Only what can be seen on camera exists: it stops just out of frame. However this nudge-in-the-ribs joke (look, only the legs!) melds into a kinder, more subtle sense of wonder. Mannix walks through the absurd studio world, treading the path to the colossal three-cross set piece: even he can occasionally participate wholeheartedly in his own fantasy. The movie gives a backhanded compliment. Hollywood might be a farce, but it’s more than a circus; it’s powered, like religion, by its own convictions.
At the same time, the genuine talent on screen—both diegetic and otherwise—is staggering. If there’s one part of this movie that feels more like a love letter to Old Hollywood than any other, it’s the showcase of demanding, natural talent exhibited by many of the studio workers. There’s the youthful talent and joy of naïve performers like Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy character. The heroic technical skill of film editors like Dede Allen and Margaret Booth (nodded to by Frances McDormand’s brief one-scene appearance as C.C. Calhoun) who physically arranged, cut, and spliced strips of nitrite film in their dark cutting rooms. The extended screen time donated to Burt Gurney (Tatum’s) dance number, which isn’t only for laughs. Hollywood’s brand of genius is given its share of the spectacle. The Coens may mock relentlessly, but they also allow a light, underlying sense of wonder to pervade the Golden Age charade. It’s difficult to feel applause isn’t due when the credits roll.